County workers open up a debris basin to contain floodwaters in an area burned by the Thomas Fire.

County of Santa Barbara

County workers open up a debris basin to contain floodwaters in an area burned by the Thomas Fire.

Potentially ‘Catastrophic’ Mudslides Predicted in the Wake of the Thomas Fire

Fire-Denuded Hillsides and Rain a Potent Mix for Flooding

The Santa Barbara County Supervisors expressed serious concern during a special meeting held Wednesday about the potential for mudslides and flooding from the slippery burn scars created by the Thomas Fire.

“This has got the potential to be catastrophic,” County Supervisor Peter Adam warned. “At this point we are at the mercy of Mother Nature.”

The concern is shared by the county’s Office of Emergency Management, whose staff is monitoring the weather “all of the time,” said the department’s director Robert Lewin. He explained they are identifying impacted areas, clearing debris, and working with Cal Fire and Forest Service teams to assess rocky hillsides.

County water expert Tom Fayram said county workers began clearing the debris basins at San Ysidro and Gobernador canyons “as soon as the fire department would let us in.” It is worth noting, Lewin said, that the Coast Village Road area flooded following the 1971 Romero Fire and the 1964 Coyote Fire.

While touring the impact areas in recent days, Lewin said problems have already occurred. “We’re starting to see gravity rock fall,” he said. “One rock could close a road.”

Areas under evacuation and at risk for flooding

County staff created an interactive map to show areas at risk of flooding. The area now in danger is substantially larger than regions identified in the 100-year flood plan, noted County Supervisor Das Williams. “This will be a shock to most property owners not in the plan who have not bought flood insurance,” he said.

“Many, many people will be impacted,” Fayram added. The sheer size of the burn — 281,893 acres, the largest wildfire in California history — means there are many hillsides down which a large amount of water that could flow. “Water courses” could be completely filled with debris, Fayram said. “There is no way to stop that,” he said, adding it is “going to go somewhere.”

The county has prepared a list of post-Thomas actions that include flood prevention and response.

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